By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT FIRST APPEARED IN 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott’s comprehensive visual essay Changing New York had already weathered several years of bitter struggle over its content, a debate between Abbott’s New Deal-era sponsors at the Federal Art Project and her publisher, E.P.Dutton, over just what kind of book it should be. Berenice and her partner, writer Elizabeth McCausland, envisioned the tour of the the five boroughs as a documentary, at a time when the very term itself was new, with virtually no one agreed on what it even meant. Abbott’s idea for the book was to show skyscrapers and shacks, apartment towers and wharf warehouses, side-by-side, to illustrate the constancy of evolution, of a city that not only never slept but hardly ever slowed down. Meanwhile the Feds and Dutton had their own separate agendas, resulting in a fierce tug-of-war over the final configuration of CNY. In the end, Abbott was forced to severely modulate her vision. However, in the broad sweep of history, even her “mutilated” masterpiece proved essential, not only in the history of New York but in the development of photography as a fine art.
Over the years, I have seldom been without a copy of Changing New York, which began as a collection of over 300 plates and was published with just under 100. Different “restored” or “complete” versions continue in print to the present day, and the reader is welcome to embrace Abbott and McCausland’s original sequence and text, or an exhaustive compendium of everything she shot, and draw his/her own conclusions. With the past year involving a lot of looking over my shoulder at my own accumulated photographic output, I recently found that, quite unintentionally, I have, over the last twenty years or so, made pictures of several of the very same street scenes that were covered in CNY, creating a very personal “before and after” comparison between the Manhattan of 1939 and that of today. In a few cases, many of the players….buildings, transport systems, street configurations…have remained remarkably stable. By contrast, a look at the two images of Columbus Circle shown here, Abbott’s from 1938 and my own from 2015, may as well be comparisons of the sun and the moon.
We tend to think of cities as static things, as fixed objects which are always “there”. And, in the case of a few mile markers like the Empire State or the Statue of Liberty, that’s certainly true. But in general, urban areas are being both created and destroyed every day, the currents of their streets ebbing and flowing. Abbott tried to demonstrate this in the New York of the Depression years, a time when convulsive social change, tremendous economic disparity and an uncertain future showed a city that had already begun to obliterate its pre-1900 past in the name of progress. Despite the art-by-committee compromises that Dutton and the FAP visited upon the first version of Changing New York, Berenice Abbott succeeded better than she could have known in giving us a detailed, unsentimental record of the way of cities in The American Century. And today, when we make our own pilgrimages to those same streets, we cannot help peering through her viewfinder in pursuit of our personal visions.
THE AMERICAN SKYSCRAPERS OF THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY are the closet modern equivalent to the pyramids of ancient Egypt, in intention if not in design. Both types of structures are bids for immortality by powerful individuals looking to make a permanent record of their temporary successes, to proclaim I was here in bold characters and broad gestures.
Frank W. Woolworth, whose “five-and-dime” stores defined discount retail for generations, decided, in 1910, to essentially generate his own ludicrously overwrought headstone, which sprung, two years later, to the then-insane height of 792 feet, at 195 Broadway in lower Manhattan, catty-corner from the New York City Hall. Architect Cass Gilbert, whose beaux-arts styling suggested a transplantation of the values of old-world Rome and Greece to the USA, was contracted by Woolworth for the creation of his redolent redoubt, a project that effectively kick-started the first golden age of the American skyscraper and reigned as tallest building in the world for nearly seventeen years. Gilbert’s ongoing homage to classical architecture, seen in such landmarks as the U.S. Supreme Court building, resulted in a structure that resembled a gothic cathedral, minus the pesky God parts.
Indeed, the only “deity” enshrined in the Woolworth was Frank W., himself, his surname initial crowning dozens of doors and panels and his visage captured in the image you see here, a sculpted caricature of the magnate counting…what else?….coins (Illustrator Thomas Johnson also inspired similar carved likenesses of architect Gilbert and other key players in the tower project).
Open once more to guided tours in recent years (following a post 9/11 security lockdown), the Woolworth’s riot of rich woods, veined marble, stained glass and whimsical ornamentation are a treasure trove for photographers. To encourage your own visit, I’ve created a small gallery from my own, viewable by clicking the page tab marked The Wonderful Woolworth, seen at the top of this page.
In terms of technical specs, all images were shot handheld in existing light (flash would be worthless there, even were it permitted) with a manual 24mm Nikkor wide-angle shooting at apertures of either f/4 or f/2.8, shutter speeds from 1/13 to 1/60 of a second, and ISOs ranging from 1250 to 1600. But in terms of just being able to walk inside Cass Gilbert’s politely profane Edwardian birthday cake, you won’t need a camera to come away with some astounding memories.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN A HOUSE CRAMMED WITH LUXURIANT COFFEE TABLE BOOKS ON PHOTOGRAPHY, my most lovingly thumbed volumes seem to center on studies of Art Deco architecture, a subject which provides me with endless enjoyment. Some books touch on overall moderne design, but most are specific reference works on the zigzags, chevrons, whorls and curves of buildings, clad in this seductive, streamlined celebration of style. Similarly, my travel plans over the years involve sticking pins in the globe to indicate the fattest troves of these buildings, mapping my strategies for someday capturing them inside a box. It’s a bucket list, if buckets had been designed by Walter Dorwin Teague or Norman bel Geddes.
Shooting Deco buildings can humble one, since the sheer volume of decorative accents in a single skyscraper could consume a coffee table book all its own. Deco may use fewer details or lines to suggest an idea compared to earlier eras, but it is still undeniably busy. Some truly extreme edifices, such as Los Angeles’ Pantages Theatre, can nearly give you claustrophobia. These places were certainly meant to be looked at, but, to our contemporary eye, trying to take them “all in” is a little like sending your eye on a three-day bender. This also means that, for photographers, trying to tell a complete story in a single image is pert nigh impossible.
To that thought, I have spent several years going over shoots of Deco buildings that originally involved, say, thirty to forty images, only to find that, even when I was trying to break these giant birthday cakes into smaller slices, there was still enough going on, even in the edited shots, to warrant a second, third, or even fourth “sub-cropping”. One such place, also in L.A., is the giant faux-jade tower known as the Wiltern Theatre, so named because it occupies a corner at the intersection of WILshire Boulevard and WesTERN Avenue. The place was originally the Hollywood capstone of the Warner Brothers theatre chain, and survives today as a live performance space (think alt-rock meets emo). Point a camera anywhere, and you’ll harvest a click-ton of exuberant, exploding ornamentation.
The large shot seen at the top of the page is but one section of the glorious molded plaster overhang beneath the Wiltern’s marquee. The inset image at left is the larger master shot, in which I originally thought I was keeping it simple by limiting the frame to the lower part of the front right corner of the building. Turns out that even this “tighter” composition was too busy, hence the more radical crop to a smaller part of the pattern. On the way to the final edit, I also flipped the design upside down to make it splay out more dramatically and converted the dull gun-metal green to blue for a little extra romance.
All of which seems to be yet another re-hash of the old “less is more” argument. Simplify, simplify, grab the stone from my hand, grasshopper, etc., etc. Art Deco is a style in which the devil (the delight?) is most definitely in the details. Some are so incredible that it seems a sin to have them vanish into large, comprehensive uber-shots of big buildings, rather than being given the loving attention they deserve. And certainly, for photographers, there are other such visual birthday cakes that are more appetizing if you simply cut yourself a smaller slice.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, IN THE WORLD OF SPORTS, A PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE known as the “home field advantage”, wherein a team can turn a superior knowledge of its native turf against its visiting opponent. The accuracy of this belief has never been conclusively proven, but it’s interesting to think on whether it applies to photography as well. Do we, for the purposes of making pictures, know our own local bailiwicks better than visitors ever can? Or is it, as I suspect, the dead opposite?
Familiarity may not breed contempt, but, when it comes to our seeing everything in our native surroundings with an artistic eye, it can breed a kind of invisibility, a failing to see something that has long since receded into the back part of our attention, and thus stops registering as something to see anew, or with fresh interpretation. How many buildings on the street we take into the office are still standouts in our mind’s eye? How many objects would we be amazed to learn are actually part of our walk home, and yet “unseen” by us as we mentally drift along that drab journey?
It may be that there is actually a decided “out-of-towner” advantage in visiting a place where you have no pre-conceptions or habitual routes, in approaching things and places in cities as totally new, free of prior associations. I’ve often been asked of an image, “where did you take that?” only to inform the questioner that the building in the picture is a half block from their place of business. The above image was taken on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, not more than a half block and across the street from the Chrysler building. It is a gorgeous treasure of design cues every bit as symbolic of the golden age of Art Deco as its aluminum clad neighbor, and yet I could hold a contest amongst many New Yorkers as to where or what it is and never have to award the prize money. The Chrysler’s very fame eclipses its neighbors, rendering them less visible.
Perception is at the heart of every visual art, and the most difficult things to re-imagine are the ones which have ceased to strike us as special. And since everyone lives in a city that is at least partly invisible to them, it stands to reason that an outside eye can make its own “something new” out of everyone else’s “something old”. Realize and celebrate your special power as a photographic outlier.
It went “zip” when it moved and “bop” when it stopped,
And “whirr” when it stood still.
I never knew just what it was and I guess I never will.
Tom Paxton, The Marvelous Toy
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE ARE MORE OLD LENSES THAN THERE ARE OLD CAMERAS. There’s a reason for this. Bodies come and go like spring and fall dress collections. Lenses are the solid, reliable blue jeans that never go out of style. Lenses hold their value for decades, often selling for (or even above) their original asking prices. Bodies become landfill.
Many times, when people believe they have outgrown their cameras, they are actually just in need of glass that performs better. The importance of selecting a lens is as important in the digital age as it was in the film era. The eye through which you visualize your dreams has to be clear and precise, and so does the thinking that goes into its selection. That process, for me, breaks down into three main phases.
First, before you buy anything, raise a prayer of thanks for the Holy Internet. There is, now, not only no need, but also no excuse to buy the wrong lens. Read the manufacturer’s press releases. The reviews from both pros and amateurs nearest your own skill level. And be ecumenical about it. Read articles by people who hate the lens you think you love. Hey, better to ID a problem child before he’s living under your roof. Watch the Youtube videos on basics, like how to unpack the thing, how many parts it has, how to rotate the geetus located to the left of the whatsit to turn it on. Find out how light efficient it is, because the freer you are of flash units and tripods, the better for your photography. And, at this early shopping stage, as with all other stages, keep asking yourself the tough questions. Do I really need another lens, or do I just need to be better with what I already own (which is cheaper)? Will it allow me to make pictures that I can’t currently make? Most importantly, in six months, will it be my “go-to”, or another wondrous toy sleeping in my sock drawer?
Assuming that you actually do buy a new lens after all that due diligence, nail it onto your camera and force yourself to use it exclusively for a concentrated period. Take it on every kind of shoot and force it to make every kind of picture, especially the ones that seem counter-intuitive. Is it a great zoom? Well, hey, it might make an acceptable macro lens as well. But you’ll never know unless you try. You can’t even say what the limits of a given piece of glass are until you attempt to exceed them. Find out how well it performs at every aperture, every distance, every f/stop. Each lens has a sweet spot of optimum focus, and while that may be the standard two stops above wide open, don’t assume that. Take lots of bad pictures with the lens (this part is really easy, especially at the beginning). They will teach you more than the luck-outs.
Final phase: boot camp for you personally. Now that you have this bright shiny new plaything, rise to the level of what it offers. Prove that you needed it by making the best pictures of your life with it. Change how you see, plan, execute, edit, process, and story-tell. See if the lens can be stretched to do the work of several of your other lenses, the better to slim down your profile, reduce the junk hanging around your neck, and speed up your reaction time to changing conditions.
Work it until you can’t imagine how you ever got along without it.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHY OFTEN RE-DEFINES OUR PERCEPTION OF THE FAMILIAR, re-contextualizing everyday objects in ways that force us to see them differently. Nowhere is this more effective than in close-up and macro photography, where we deliberately isolate or magnify details of things so that they lose their typical associations. Indeed, using the camera to cast subjects in unfamiliar ways is one of the most delightful challenges of the art.
Product developers are comfortable with the idea that “form follows function”, that how we use a thing will usually dictate how it must be designed. The shapes and contours of the objects in our world are arrived at only as we tailor the look of a thing to what it does. That’s why we don’t have square wheels. The problem with familiar objects is that, as long as they do what they were designed to do, we think less and less about the elegance of their physical design. Photographers can take things out of this chain of the mundane, and, in showcasing them, force us to see them in purely visual terms. They stop playing the piano, and instead look under the lid at the elegant machine within. They strip off the service panel of the printer and show us the ballet of circuitry underneath.
It’s even easier to do this, and yields more dramatic results, as we begin to re-investigate those things that have almost completely passed from daily use. To our 21st-century eyes, a 1910 stock ticker might as well be an alien spaceship, so far removed is it from typical experience. I recently viewed a permanent wave machine from a beauty parlor of the 1930’s, sitting on a forgotten table at a flea market. It took me two full minutes to figure out what I was even looking at. Did I snap it? You betcha.
The study of bygone function is also a magical mystery tour of design innovation. You start to suss out why the Edisons of the world needed this shape, these materials, arranged in precisely this way, to make these things work. Zooming in for a tighter look, as in the case of the typewriter in the above image, forces a certain viewpoint, creating compositions of absolute shapes, free to be whatever we need them to be. Form becomes our function.
The same transformation can happen when you have seemingly exhausted a familiar subject, or shot away at it until your brain freezes and no new truth seems to be coming forth. Walking away from the project for a while, even a few hours, often reboots your attitude towards it, and the image begins to emerge. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching.
Entering a Frank Lloyd Wright home is like unwrapping a birthday present. The concrete walk ends in a circular ramp that rises to the left and around the David Wright house to create this wonderful open space.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IF A HOME CAN BE SAID TO BE AN EVENT, then a door is the engraved invitation that bids you to witness that event. When you think about it, a door is the most crucial part of a house’s design, certainly its most deliberately provocative. It advertises and defines what lies within. It’s a grand tease to a mystery, the last barrier before you invade someone’s most personal space. It’s no wonder that entrances to places are among the most photographed objects on the planet. The subject is as inexhaustibly varied as the people who construct these lovely masks.
Frank Lloyd Wright did more than create drama as you entered one of his houses; he actually enlisted you in generating your own wonder. Often the great man made you a little squirmy as you prepared to come inside, compressing door heights and widths to slightly uncomfortable dimensions. Pausing for a moment, you could almost feel like Alice after she ate the wrong cake, as if you might never be able to wriggle through the door frame.
Shortly after this ordeal, however, Wright would let the full dimensions of the inner house open suddenly and dramatically, as he does in the image above, taken at the home that he designed for his son David in Phoenix, Arizona. After ducking your head, you step into a court that has…no ceiling…since it ends in a ramp that both climbs around and supports a house that encircles you, creating an intimate courtyard that is both confined and limitless.
Doors make statements, almost boasts, about the wonder that lies just inches beyond them, and, like all generators of mystery, they are often most interesting when the question is never answered. Doors we never see beyond are often the most intriguing, like a woman behind a veil. When I invade a new neighborhood, my camera’s eye goes to doors before anything else. Sometimes the spaces they conceal don’t live up to the hype, but doors, these stage productions at the front of grand and humble abodes alike, offer something tantalizing to the eye.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.
PHOTOGRAPHERS LOVE TO COMPILE LISTS OF LAWS that must be obeyed to ensure the capture of great images. Bookshelves are jammed to fracturing with the collected works of wizards large and small who contend that all of this art stuff is really about craft, or adherence to techniques that are the equivalent of Einstein’s law. And, of course, with every fresh generation, a new slew of shooters come sneering along to deride this starched and stuffy discipline. All that matters, these young turks snigger, is my grand vision.
Let me again re-state the obvious, which is that both viewpoints are correct and/or totally wrong. And since Mr. Weston has introduced the subject of composition, let us consider the special task of seasonal photos, specifically, arrangements of yuletide objects. The classic rule on still-life shots is that less is more, that it’s better to perfectly light and expose three pieces of fruit than whole baskets of the stuff. Meanwhile the festive, instinctual artist concedes that many holiday scenes are mad with detail and crammed with more, more, more…..and that’s okay.
The unique thing about Christmas decor is that in many cases, you not creating the compositions, but merely reacting to someone else’s creations…in nativity scenes, churches, and especially in retail environments. Obviously your local department store doesn’t adhere to the admonition “keep it simple”; quite the opposite. Seasonal trim in most stores is served up not by the spoonful but by the truckload. Anything less than overkill seems skimpy to many yuletide decorators, and so, if you favor basic subject matter, you’re either going to have to mount your own arrangements or selectively zoom and crop the more congested scenes. If, however, you already subscribe to the idea that more is better, then life gets easy fast.
Holidays come layered in much that is intensely personal, and that makes clean compositional judgements about “how much” or “how little” tricky at best. Just get the feelings right and let your regular rules relax into guidelines.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I GENERALLY STAY OUT OF THE PREDICTION BUSINESS, and with good reason. Anyone who sets himself up in the prophecy business had better keep his day job, a truth which has been demonstrated time and again by any number of junior league wizards who believe they know how to read the tea leaves in Tomorrowland. That’s why I have always kept the pages of The Normal Eye pretty free of excess doses of prognostication on what’s next or what’s inevitable regarding photography.
However, even though it’s foolish to cite specific equipment or inventions as “proof” that a new day has arrived, it’s often obvious when something of a tipping point is coming that will transform the entire process of making pictures. And I feel confident that we are now at one of those points as the latest smartphone cameras begin the blurring, if not the erasure, of difference between photography in mobile devices and photography from traditional gear, especially, for the first time, DSLRs.
The main gist of this tipping point is the ability of mobiles, finally, to allow for manual override of many camera functions that were, in earlier years, completely automated. Phone cameras in their original iteration were an all-or-nothing proposition, in that you clicked and hoped that the device’s auto settings would serve up an acceptable image. As for any kind of artistic control, you had to try to intervene after the shutter snap, via apps. It was the opposite of the personal control that was baked into DLSRs, and many photographers rightly balked at abandoning their Nikons and Canons for what was essentially a compact point-and-shoot.
But we are suddenly in very different territory now. The newest models by a variety of smartphone manufacturers will not only offer shooting apertures as wide as f/1.8, drastically increasing the flow of light to the camera’s sensors, but will also give shooters the option to either tap-customize a variety of shooting settings on-screen, or merely leave the device on full auto. The ability to override factory defaults is what separates the camera men from the camera boys, so this, in the words of Joe Biden, is a big &%$#ing deal. It means that many photographers who never even considered doing their “serious” shooting on a smartphone might at least mull over the option of leaving their full-function DSLRs at home, at least occasionally.
It would be foolish to predict the wholesale desertion of capital “C” Cameras by the shooting public, since such changes never come about for everyone at one time. Plenty of people continued to ride horses after the first flivvers rattled out of the factory. But there is certainly a major debate on the horizon about how much, and what kind of camera allows you to get the shot, easier and more of the time.
And getting the shot, as we know, is all that has ever mattered. All the rest is cheek music.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
EACH MAJOR URBAN CENTER HAS ITS PHOTOGRAPHIC SUPERSTARS, those destination attractions that are documented to death by shooters great and small. Name the city and you can rattle off the names of the usual suspects. The landmarks. The legends. The here’s-proof-that-I-was-there vacation pictures. Meanwhile, the rest of the buildings within our super-cities, that is the majority of the remaining structures on most streets everywhere, remain under-photographed and, largely, unknown.
Part of the problem is our photographic viewpoint, which apes our human viewpoint. As drivers or pedestrians, we necessarily focus most our attention at events topping out at just about two stories above street level. This means we will almost certainly n0t see the mashup of architectural styles just outside our peripheral range. We don’t follow the visual line of buildings all the way up, either because we are walking, or because we don’t want to look like some out-of-town rube. But there is real drama in the collision of all those unseen details, and, if you’re interested in showing the city as an abstract design, some real opportunities.
I find that shooting toward the intersection of parts of three or more buildings amplifies the contrast between design eras, with doric columns and oak clusters crashing into International style glass boxes, overlayed with Art Deco zigzags. I shoot them with standard lenses instead of zooms to preserve the intensity of color and contrast, then create the final frame I want in the cropping. Zooms also tend to flatten things out, making buildings that are actually hundreds of feet from each other appear to be in single flat plane. Regular lenses keep the size and distance relationships relatively intact.
Importantly, I don’t shoot entrances, emblems, signage, anything that would specifically identify any one building, and I steer away from places that are recognizable in a touristy way. I’m not really interested in these buildings in their familiar context, but as part of a larger pattern, so I don’t want to “name” things in the image since it will draw away interest from other elements.
The city is a concrete (sorry) thing, but it is also a rich puzzle of design that offers almost infinite variety for the photographer. Best thing is, these compositions are just inches away from where you were bored to death, just a second ago.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MARKETING BEING WHAT IT IS, CAMERA MANUFACTURERS HAVE LONG TOLD US THEY ARE DOING ONE THING FOR US when they are actually doing something very different. Since the first furry, day-long exposures of the 1800’s gave us a taste of what an entirely new medium could do in the way of chronicling the world, we have been promised that, over succeeding generations of technical development, taking a picture would get easier. In fact, this is a little inaccurate, as what the wizards have mostly done is to make taking a picture faster.
If this sounds like I’m splitting a sub-atomic-sized hair, hear me out. Many of the refinements in camera design over the last century and a half have, of course, improved the sharpness of lenses, the absorbance quotient of recording media, and enhanced design. However, the lion’s share of reboots have been to require fewer steps in framing and shooting, through increasing auto-delegating of many functions to smarter and smarter cameras. But, what we basically gain by this process is speed. It certainly takes much less time to shoot and get an acceptable result as the years roll by. “Well”, you may well ask, “doesn’t that mean the whole process is also easier?”
Tricky question, as it turns out.
In that you can take technically better images with less effort the further we roll along, then yes, it’s “easier”. But the same speed which is part of the “easy” process also means that we spend less time planning a picture, seeing it in our minds and creating it with deliberate action…cause, you know, the camera will do it. This means that it’s also easy to miss things, to fail to visualize the best way to take a shot versus the most expedient way. Slowing down by adding steps into the creation of a photograph means taking back control, so it is, if you will, “harder”, but, with practice of the total process of photographing, the ease, and even the speed all comes back anyway.
I wanted the name of this blog to contain a subtitle about journeying from taking to making images because that is the trek that most photographers eventually set out on. We begin to wonder what it would be like to be more completely in charge of what kind of pictures we wind up with, even if it’s only to take a series of baby steps. It does take more time to take the process into your own hands. But it’s not that hard. Auto-settings save you time, but they may not save your shot. Choosing the inconvenient isn’t ignoring technology. It’s making it work your will with your pictures.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GLASS SURFACES REPRESENT A SERIES OF CHOICES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS, an endless variety of effects based on the fact that they are both windows and mirrors, bouncing, amplifying or channeling light no less than any other subject in your frame. No two shooters approach the use (or avoidance) of glass as a compositional component in quite the same way. To some, it’s a barrier that they have to get past to present a clear view of their subject. To others, its fragments and shards of angle and light are part of the picture, adding their own commentary or irony.
I usually judge glass’ value in a photograph by two basic qualifiers: context and structure. First, context: suppose you are focused on something that lies just beyond a storefront window. What visual information is outside the scope of the viewer, say something over your shoulder or across the street, that might provide additional impact or context if reflected in the glass that is in direct view? It goes without saying that all reflections are not equal, so automatically factoring them into your photo may add dimension, or merely clutter things up.
The other qualifier is the structure of the glass itself. How does the glass break up, distort, or re-color light within an enclosure? In the above image, for example, I was fascinated by the complex patterns of glass in an auto showroom, especially in the way it reassigned hues once the sun began to set. I had a lot of golden light fighting for dominance with the darker colors of the lit surfaces within the building, making for a kind of cubist effect. No color was trustworthy or natural , and yet everything could be rendered “as is” and regarded by the eye as “real”. The glass was part of the composition, in this instance, and at this precise moment. Midday or morning light would render a completely different effect, perhaps an unwelcome one.
Great artists from Eugene Atget to Robert Frank have created compelling images using glass as a kind character actor in their shots. It’s an easy way to deepen the impact of your shots. Let the shards and fragments act like tiles to assemble your own mosaics.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE FUTURE DOESN’T ARRIVE ALL AT ONCE, just as the past doesn’t immediately vanish completely. In terms of technology, that means that eras kinds of smear across each other in a gradual “dissolve”. Consider the dial telephone, which persisted in various outposts for many years after the introduction of touch-tone pads, or, more specifically, Superman’s closet, the phone booth, which stubbornly overstayed its welcome long past the arrival of the cel. The “present” is always a mishmosh of things that have just arrived and things that are going away. They sort of pass each other, like workers at change of shift.
Photographically, this means that there are always relics of earlier eras that persist past their sell-by date. They provide context to life as part of a kind of ever-flowing visual history. It also means that you need to seize on these relics lest they, and their symbolic power, are lost to you forever. Everything that enjoys a brief moment as an “everyday object” will eventually recede in use to such a degree that younger generations couldn’t even visually identify it or place it in its proper time order (a toaster from 1900 today resembles a Victorian space heater more than it does a kitchen appliance).
Ironically, this is a double win for photographers. You can either shoot an object to conjure up a bygone era, or you can approach it completely without context, as a pure design element. You can produce substantial work either way.
Some of the best still life photography either denies an object its original associations or isolates it so that it is just a compositional component. The thing is to visually re-purpose things whose original purpose is no longer. Photography isn’t really about what things look like. It’s more about what you can make them look like.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF MY FAVORITE SONGS FROM THE ’40’s, especially when it emanates from the ruby lips of a smoking blonde in a Jessica Rabbit-type evening gown, conveys its entire message in its title: Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out! The hilarious lyrics speak of a woman who acknowledges that, yeah, you’re an okay guy, but don’t get needy. No strings on me, baby. I’ll call you when I want you, doll. Until then, be a pal and take a powder.
I sometimes think of that song when looking for street images. Yes, I’m aware that the entire sweep of human drama is out there, just ripe for the picking. The highs. The lows. Thrill of victory and agony of de feet. But. I always feel as if I’m cheating the world out of all that emotional sturm und drang if I want to make images without, you know, all them people. It’s not that I’m anti-social. It’s just that compelling stuff is happening out there that occasionally only gets compromised or cluttered with humans in the frame.
Scott Kelby, the world’s biggest-selling author of photographic tutorials, spends about a dozen pages in his recent book Photo Recipes showing how to optimize travel photos by either composing around visitors or just waiting until they go away. I don’t know Scott, but his author pic always looks sunny and welcoming, as if he really loves his fellow man. And if he feels it’s cool to occasionally go far from the madding crowd, who am I to argue? There are also dozens of web how-to’s on how to, well, clean up the streets in your favorite neighborhood. All of these people are also, I am sure, decent and loving individuals.
There is some rationality to all this, apart from my basic Scrooginess. Photographically, some absolutes of abstraction or pure design just achieve their objective without using people as props. Another thing to consider is that people establish the scale of things. If you don’t want that scale, or if showing it limits the power of the image, then why have a guy strolling past the main point of interest just to make the picture “human” or, God help us, “approachable”?
Faces can create amazing stories, imparting the marvelous process of being human to complete scenes in unforgettable ways. And, sometimes, a guy walking through your shot is just a guy walking through your shot. Appreciate him. Accommodate him. And always greet him warmly:
Told ya I love ya. Now get out.
WE ALL REMEMBER ONE OF OUR FIRST VIEWS OF THE MICROSCOPIC WORLD, the intricate latticework of an enlarged snowflake crystal, in all its startling elegance. My own initial glimpse came during the projection of a well-worn 16mm film on a cinder-block wall in a small elementary-school science classroom. From that point forward, I could never hear certain words…design, order, mathematics, or, later on, Bach, without also seeing that snowflake in my mind. Funnily enough, the only thing that didn’t conjure up that delicate crystal were the words snow, snowfall, or snowflake. In some way, the enlarged pattern had become something apart unto itself, a separate thing with no origin, no pre-assigned purpose or definition. It was just a pure visual experience, devoid of context, complete and distinct.
I still experience that thrill when using a camera to remove the context from everyday objects, forcing them to be considered free of “backstory” or familiarity. I love it when people react to a photograph of light patterns that just “are”, without bringing to it the need to have the thing explained or placed in any particular setting. The easiest way to do this is through magnification, since many things we consider commonplace are, when isolated and amplified, ripe with details and patterns, that, at normal size, are essentially invisible to us. Another way to do it is to take away the things that the subject is normally seen as part of, or adjacent to. Again, magnification does much of this for us, allowing us to frame a single gear inside a machine or zone in on one connection in larger universes of function.
However this viewpoint is obtained, it can be very freeing because you are suddenly working with little more than the effect of light itself. You arrive at a place where a photographic image needn’t be about anything, where you’re working in simple absolutes of shape and composition. At the same time, you’re also conferring that freedom on your viewers, since they are also released from the prison of literalism. They can admire, even love, a pure composition for no relatable reason, just as we all did with our old stencil kits and Spirographs.
This all takes us full circle to our earliest days, and one of the first experiences any of us had as designers. Remember being told to fold a piece of construction paper in half, then half again, then half again? Recall being invited to randomly cut away chunks from the perimeter of that square, any way we wanted? Remember the wonder of unfolding it to see our cuts mirrored, doubled, cubed into a stunning design?
Remember what the teacher said when we unveiled our masterpieces?
Oh, look, class, she said, you’ve made a snowflake.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN IT COMES TO DISCUSSIONS ABOUT ART, THE WORD “ABSTRACT” IS PROBABLY THE MOST BATTED-ABOUT LINGUISTIC SHUTTLECOCK OF THE 20TH CENTURY, something we lob at each other across the conversational net as it suits our mood. Whenever we feel we should weigh in on a matter of artistic heft, especially something that doesn’t fit into a conveniently familiar cubbyhole, we drag “abstract” out of the desk drawer, dust it off, and cram it into place somewhere in the argument.
Any talk of architecture, and the photographer’s reaction to it, attracts a lot of stray “abstracts”, since attaching the word seems to settle… something. However, art can never be about settling anything. In fact, it’s about churning things up, starting, rather than resolving, arguments. As pieces of pure design, finished buildings do make a statement of sorts about the architect’s view, at least. But when trolling about town, I am more drawn to incomplete or skeletal frameworks for buildings yet to be. They are simply open to greater interpretation as visual subject matter, since we haven’t, if you like, seen all the architect’s cards yet. The emerging project can, for a time, be anything, depending literally on where you stand or how light shapes the competing angles and contours.
I feel that open or unfinished spaces are really ripe with an infinite number of framings, since a single uncompleted wall gives way so openly to all the other planes and surfaces in the design, a visual diagram that will soon be closed up, sealed off, sequestered from view. And as for the light, there is no place it cannot go, so you can chase the tracking of shadows all day long, as is possible with, say, the Grand Canyon, giving the same composition drastically different flavors in just the space of a few hours.
If the word “abstract” has any meaning at all at this late date, you could say that it speaks to a variation, a reworking of the dimensions of what we consider reality. Beyond that, I need hip waders. However, I believe that emerging buildings represent an opportunity for photographers to add their own vision to the architect’s, however briefly.
Whew. Now let’s all go out get a drink.
by MICHAEL PERKINS
SHE HAS WITHSTOOD THE GREAT DEPRESSION, A WORLD WAR, DECADES OF ECONOMIC UPS & DOWNS, and half a dozen owners (some visionaries and some bums), and still, the sleek green/blue terra-cotta wedge that is the Wiltern Theatre is one of the most arresting sights in midtown Los Angeles. From her 83-year old perch at the intersection of Western Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard, the jewel in the lower half of the old Pelissier building still commands attention, and, for lovers of live music, a kind of creaky respect. The old girl isn’t what she used to be, but she is still standing, as the same house that once hosted film premieres in the days of Cagney and Bogart now hosts alternative and edge, with pride.
And she still makes a pretty picture, lined face and all.
Opened in 1931 as a combination vaudeville house and flagship for Warner Brothers’ national chain of film theatres, The Warner Western, as it was originally named, folded up within a few years, re-opening in mid-Depression L.A. as the Wiltern (for Wilshire and Western) operating virtually non-stop until about 1956. As a vintage movie house, it had been equipped with one of the most elegant pipe organs in town, and enthusiasts of the instrument built a small following for the place for a while with recitals featuring the instrument. By the 1970’s, however, economies for larger-than-life flicker palaces were at an all-time low, and the Wiltern’s owners tried twice themselves to apply for permission to blow her down. Preservationists got mad, then got busy.
Restoration began in the 1980’s on the Pelissier building in general, but the Wiltern, with its ornate plaster reliefs and murals, had been so neglected over the years that its turnaround was slower. It was finally reborn in 1985 as a live performance theatre, losing some seat room but newly able to stage everything from brain-blaster garage rock to Broadway road productions and ballet.
I shot the Wiltern with three HDR frame, all f/5.6, with exposure times of 1/60, 1/100. and 1/160, and blended the final image in Photomatix to really show the wear and tear on the exterior. HDR is great for amplifying every flaw in building materials, as well as highlighting the uneven color that is an artifact of time and weather. I wanted to show the theatre as a stubborn survivor rather than a flawless fantasy, and the process also helped call attention to the building’s French Deco zigzags and chevrons. For an extra angle, I also made some studies of the glorious sunburst plaster ceiling over the outside ticket kiosk. It was great to meet the old girl at last, and on her own terms.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE USED TO BE A MOVEMENT IN FINE ARTS CALLED THE “ASHCAN SCHOOL”, WHICH SOUGHT TO SHOW POWER AND BEAUTY in banal or even repellent urban realities. It posed a question that continues to stoke debate within photography to this day: how much should art engage with things that are horrible? Is the creative act vital when it shows us ugliness? More importantly, is it vital because it shows us these things? And, if we choose to depict beauty to the exclusion of the ugly, is our art somehow less authentic?
The whole matter may come down to whether you see photography as a constructed interpretation of the world, kind of a visual poem, or as a sort of journalism. Of course, the medium has been shown to be wide enough for either approach, and perhaps the best work comes from struggling to straddle both camps. A world of gumdrops and lollipops can be just as pretentious and empty as a world constructed exclusively of the grisly, and I think each image has to be defined or justified as a separate case. That said, finding a ying/yang balance between both views within a single image is rare.
Falling, as I did, under the influence of landscape photographers at a really early age, I have had to learn to search for a kind of rough ballet in things that I find disturbing. I’m not saying that it’s hampered my work: far from it. Look at it another way: as a missionary, you can plant crops and build hospitals for your village, but you still have to address the area’s cholera and dysentery. It’s just a part of its life.
The image above was pretty much placed right in my path the other day as I walked to enter an urban drugstore, and, as horrified as I was by the likely origin of this savage souvenir, I had to also acknowledge it as a Darwinian study of beauty and design. The virtually intact nature of the wing, contrasted with the brutal evidence of its detachment from its owner, made for an unusual transition from poetry to chaos within a single image. Many might ask, how could you make that picture? And it’s a hard question to answer. Another question that would be just as difficult to answer: how could I not?
Certainly, I won’t be entering this in Audubon magazine’s annual photo contest: it’s also no one’s idea of cutest kitty or beautiful baby. But it is one of the most unique combinations of sensation I have ever seen, and I did not want to forget it, nightmares and all. Because we live, and take pictures in, the world at large.
Not just the world we want.
YOU CAN FILL A LIBRARY SHELF WITH OPPOSING ARGUMENTS ON LIGHT’S ROLE IN PHOTOGRAPHY, not necessarily a debate on how to capture or measure it, but more a philosophical tussle on whether light is a mere component in a photograph or enough reason, all by itself, for the image to be made, regardless of the subject matter.
The answer, for me, is different every time, although more often than not I make pictures purely because the light is here right now, and it will not wait. I actually seem to hear a clock beginning to tick from the moment I discover certain conditions, and, from that moment forward, I feel as if I am in a kind of desperate countdown to do something with this finite gift before it drifts, shifts, or otherwise mutates out of my reach. Light is running the conversation, driving the image.
“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary”, the photographer Aaron Rose famously said, and I live for the chance to ennoble or, if you will, sanctify something by how it models or is embraced by light. Certainly I usually go out looking for things to shoot, but time and time again something shifts in my priorities, forcing me to look for ways to shoot.
The practical world will look at a photograph and ask, understandably, “what is that supposed to be?”, or, more pointedly, “why did you take a picture of that?” This makes for quizzical expressions, awkward conversations and sharp disagreements within gallery walls, since our pragmatic natures demand that there be a point, an objective in all art that is as easily identifiable as going to the hardware for a particular screw. Only life, and the parts of life that inspire, can’t ever function that way.
We often decide to make an important picture of something rather than make a picture of something important. That’s not just artsy double-talk. It’s truly the decision that is placed before us.
Alfred Steiglitz remarked that “wherever there is light, photography is possible”. That’s an unlimited, boundless license to hunt for image-makers. Just give me light, the photographer asks, and I will make something of it.